A young man came up to me once as I was walking along the river. It was past sunset.
He told me I shouldn’t be out in the woods on my own at so late an hour and laughed when I remarked that he should be heeding his own advice. Then he was serious again and he said he’d heard that a terrible monster was living in this river. It was a great serpent, covered in scales silver as the moon and sharp as knives, that had the habit of crawling out of the water and turning into a beautiful woman.
‘Like me?’ I asked. ‘Not like you,’ he said and laughed once more, but stopped himself and blurted out, ‘I didn’t mean to say that you’re not beautiful, which you are and very much so. Just that you’re evidently not a monster.’
I said nothing and instead gestured at him to go on with his story.
This monster’s human shape, he told me, was so exquisite that men and women alike would become entranced and forget who they were, where they were going and what they were after. They’d wish for nothing but to get close to the beautiful girl. Then, in an instant, she would turn back to her true form and they would freeze in horror, leaving the serpent to drain the life out of them.
I asked him if he was afraid of this monster and he said he wasn’t at all, because he had been warned about it and so it could never fool him.
‘That’s good,’ I said.
He suggested we find a safe place to stay until sunrise. As we walked together, he told me he lived in the small town nearby. I told him I lived in the same place. He remarked that he hadn’t seen me before and I replied that it wasn’t that small a town.
We came to an old tree and he said we should lie down under it for the night.
He told me not to be afraid, because he wouldn’t touch one hair on my head and I would be as safe with him as I was with my own mother. As we lay down, he said it made him so glad that I was from the same place he was. In the morning, he would accompany me back to my parents’ house. He said he hoped he would make a good impression on them, because he really wanted to see me again.
I made no reply. I closed my eyes and pretended to go to sleep. He started to hum a song, loud enough at first, then fainter and fainter.
When the humming stopped and his breathing steadied, I opened my eyes and saw that he was asleep.
I willed my human form away from me and felt it dissipate like smoke. I turned my head round towards my tail and observed the reflection of the moon on my knife-like scales. Then, I moved to coil myself up around him.
He didn’t open his eyes, didn’t struggle,didn’t move at all. He was dreaming of his happy life to come.
I tightened my coils. He let out a sigh and was still.
Caught in his dream forever.
I detached myself from his body and slid back into the river.